As the Iranian nuclear crisis moves into what may be its final phase, i.e. either U.N. Security Council action but more likely eventual military strikes by the U.S., the pages of the nation's newspapers have been filled with editorials and opinion columns suggesting, for the most part, that war with Iran would be a folly of unprecedented proportions. And yet the Bush administration refuses to rule out military action against Iran, and more ominously, still refuses to rule out a preemptive nuclear attack. The media has taken note, as have some members of Congress, but there is a surprising calm in the air given that the U.S. doctrine of "no first strike" has (like a few other wise American doctrines) been supplanted by the "anything goes because I'm the decider" policies of President Bush. Perhaps the thought of another Middle Eastern war, let alone a nuclear one, is so frightening, so preposterous, that Americans cannot bring themselves to contemplate it. It may be tempting to believe that the "options on the table" are merely part of the psychological weaponry we employ, or whose existence are necessary in applying diplomatic pressure, but one has to examine the realities of the U.S.-Iran dynamic in order to understand why war is in fact the most likely route the U.S. will take.
For the first time since the hostage crisis of 1979-1980, the U.S. finds itself in the position of finally having to make a real decision on policy towards Iran. President Bush has two choices, but only one is in any way palatable to the administration. The unpalatable (or even repugnant) choice for the administration is, as suggested by a growing number of commentators, to engage the Iranian regime directly and not only come to an agreement on Iran's nuclear policy, but to also begin to repair the fractured relationship that must inevitably lead to full U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Islamic Republic. The other choice is military action that, even if it doesn't result in regime-change, will in theory substantially weaken Iran so that it can no longer wield its rapidly growing influence or threaten U.S. interests. There are no other choices, for the U.S. knows that it cannot make demands of Iran, even with support from European allies, that it can expect Iran to meet without some serious give-and-take between it and the United States. And the United States refuses to give. The diplomacy that Mr. Bush and members of his administration refer to when it comes to Iran's nuclear program is actually simply a list of demands by the U.S. They are: stop uranium conversion, stop uranium enrichment, stop any research into development of nuclear fuel or energy, forget all the nuclear knowledge you already have, and, as an aside, stop supporting Palestinian groups fighting Israel, and stop meddling in Iraq. What does the U.S. indicate (for it does not talk to the Iranians) it will offer in return? A security guarantee (that it won't attack or push for regime-change)? No. Lifting of the trade embargo (beyond pistachios and carpets)? No. Allowing the Europeans to sell Iran aircraft and aircraft parts? Yes, but certainly not military ones. Removing any U.S. objections to Iran joining the WTO? Perhaps.
Neither President Bush nor any member of his administration is so naive as to believe that the Iranians would submit to American demands given what they would receive in return. Iran, partly because of the U.S. misadventure in Iraq and largely because of its potential as a nuclear power, is now fully established as a major regional power; perhaps second only to Israel, and as such it is also not possible for the U.S. to continue its recent policy, essentially in place since the Iran-Contra affair, of ignoring Iran (or more particularly of having no Iran policy at all). President Bush will have to decide, well before his term is up, whether he'll be the first American president to bestow legitimacy on the rule of the Ayatollahs by engaging them directly, or whether he'll be the U.S. president who precipitates their fall. Given that he has formulated his foreign policy (and he hopes his legacy) largely in terms of bringing American-style democracy to the Middle East, it is difficult to imagine President Bush willing to leave office with a far more powerful and stable Islamic Republic, founding member of the "axis of evil", than when he entered it, which is in itself reason enough for all Americans to be a little less calm about the prospects for war.
Following the expected refusal of Iran last week to pay any attention to the Security Council presidential Statement of a month ago, the U.S. is now demanding that the U.N. do something "meaningful" about Iran, and what the U.S. seems to desire is a Chapter 7 demand, not request, that Iran stop enrichment and fully satisfy the IAEA as to the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, or face sanctions and the possibility of U.N.-sanctioned military action. Sanctions, unless they involve a total embargo on Iranian oil are meaningless, as the Bush administration well knows, and we already know that Iranian oil will not be embargoed, even if by some miracle the U.S. can convince Russia and China not to veto a mild sanctions regime. Mild trade sanctions will have zero effect on an Islamic Republic economy that has endured U.S. trade sanctions for virtually its entire existence. Travel restrictions on Iranian officials meanwhile, another U.N. penalty floated by the U.S. and the Europeans, is sure to elicit guffaws in Tehran. Messrs. Ahmadinejad, Larijani, Mottaki et al do not summer in St. Tropez and winter in St. Barts. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (and the other Grand Ayatollahs) barely venture beyond the Qom-Tehran corridor, let alone go abroad. But let's assume for a moment that the U.N. Security Council can be bullied into going along with some trade sanctions and travel restrictions on its officials. Iran has already said it will not comply with any U.N. resolution that impacts negatively on its nuclear activity, so the result is a foregone conclusion: sanctions, if they are applied, won't work in changing Iran's mind, and the Iranians will in the meantime continue to sell oil the Chinese, enrich uranium, develop nuclear technology, and vacation at home.
The U.S. may be encouraged by allies and commentators again, at the point that sanctions are judged to be ineffective (or if the U.N. Security Council can't even agree on sanctions), to talk directly with the Iranians, but talking to the Iranians will still mean negotiating give-and-take (and negotiating with a strengthened Iran that has either proven unsusceptible to sanctions, or proven that the world is not united against it). The give will have to be a comprehensive security guarantee and trade and diplomatic benefits that will only further strengthen the Islamic Republic, if the take is to be Iran giving up nuclear technology. And for there to be no war one has to believe, knowing President Bush, that rather than declaring the U.N. ineffective, he'll be willing to give Iran what it wants, which at the end of day are not just the carrots of trade and other like benefits, but also the respect of the world's only superpower. I, for one, am afraid that Mr. Bush would rather go to war.